Jeff Jardine: Modesto public access TV station struggling due to lack of funding

jjardine@modbee.comDecember 18, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textJeff Jardine
    Title: Local columnist
    Coverage areas: People, issues, the community
    Bio: Jeff Jardine joined The Bee's staff in 1988 after a decade at the Stockton Record. He covered sports before moving into news in 1996 and became the Local Columnist in 2003. He graduated from University of the Pacific in 1979, majoring in communications and history.
    Recent stories written by Jeff
    On Twitter: @jeffjardine57
    E-mail: jjardine@modbee.com

— There’s a scene in “It’s A Wonderful Life” in which the Bailey Building & Loan board threatens to disband unless George Bailey steps up rescue the enterprise. It pits the little guy just trying to get ahead in life against the rich, powerful and oppressive Mr. Potter.

The Central Valley Media Center’s board met similarly Wednesday night. It, too, considered disbanding. And it also has relied on a George – longtime board member, station manager and movie buff George Baker, who has stepped up more than anyone within the nonprofit organization.

The organization operates MYTV26, a public access station that airs on AT&T U-verse after being dumped by cable giant Comcast last summer. So was its sister station, KAZV-TV, a commercial channel that generated revenue needed to operate the public access station. Add a local economy so poor that Baker couldn’t find outside advertising salespeople willing to work solely on commission, and the problem was obvious: No cash flow means no future. “I don’t understand it,” Baker said. “At one point, we got 100,000 viewers a week and we still couldn’t get the local businesses to support us. It just hasn’t worked out the way we’d hoped.”

Even so, the board members decided to push on and keep MYTV26 going even without the revenue to to support it. They’ve survived for the past six months on volunteerism, and they’re hoping new blood on the board will bring people interested in keeping the dream and avenue of public access TV alive, Baker said. He is among those who will leave the board and, at the end of the month, stepping down as the station’s general manager, as well.

The most recent attempt hasn’t failed due to a lack of effort or commitment. Baker and wife Louise, also a board member, sank roughly $20,000 of their own money into the venture over the past six years, buying equipment to keep the station going. (See the scene in the movie in which new bride Mary Bailey ponied up $2,000 of their honeymoon cash to enable the Building & Loan to survive the Black Friday bank run).

The Bakers had no chance of even drawing small salaries, let alone recouping their investment. George Baker, in fact, volunteered as many as 80 hours a week without pay until the physical and mental stress sent him to the hospital briefly a couple of years ago. Louise demanded he scale back his time and efforts.

The nonprofit is six months behind on its rent to building owners Lynnette and Jim Scott, who also are board members. It needs roughly $60,000 a year to operate and receives no government funding.

Modesto cable subscribers pay a fee on their monthly bill. The fee is called a PEG fee, standing for public access, education and government. In an agreement with the Central Valley Media Center’s predecessor, the Community Media Network, the city stopped giving money to public access stations around in 2004, though it continues to collect the cable fee. “They gave $16,000 (toward public access) and said, ‘You’re on your own from here on out,’ ” Baker said. Final Cut Media operates the government and education channels in the city.

The nonprofit has tried various methods of generating interest and revenue, among them doing live prep football and basketball telecasts of Modesto Metro Conference games in 2011-12. Volunteer camera operator and board member Janeiro Freeda, who will replace Baker as the station’s GM, said he really enjoyed the live work but the only revenue it generated came from the sales of game DVDs to the players’ parents. “Enough for some gas money (for the other volunteer crew members), but not enough to pay them.”

MYTV26’s current lineup includes religious programming, a fishing show and reruns of “Victim’s Voice,” which appeared live until host Jacque MacDonald moved to Oregon earlier this year. The reruns are relevant, Baker said, because many of the criminal cases remain unsolved.

With neither a funding source nor a nonprofit organization to oversee MYTV26, it can’t continue to exist, said secretary RaeLene Pritchett, who is also leaving the board in two weeks. Trying to keep it going with only volunteers, she said, simply isn’t doable. “People got tired of working for free.”

Try as he might, George Baker couldn’t save it. So he’ll let someone else take over. A wonderful effort, with Old Man Potter still lurking.

For more information on public access TV, contact George Baker at (209) 566-9135.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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